Fire Burns Brighter In The Darkness

Francis Lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence
Josh Hutcherson

Asking me to review a story in two halves is like asking me to review a Marvel film at this point: you’re going to get a bit of a rehash review. Sorry. The story, scenery and actors change but the positives/negatives are exactly the same and The Mockingjay: Part I crashes headfirst into every pitfall; all setup, no payoff. The ultimate problem with the split is the notion of having a glorious three course meal prepared and beautifully laid out before you, only to then wait a year before a burly Frenchman violently force feeds you for two hours like a foie gras goose; neither experience is overly satisfying and you’re left a little shell-shocked.

At the close of Catching Fire Katniss [Lawrence] is rescued by a group of rebels operating out of District 13, who are preparing a revolutionary uprising against the oppressive rule of the Capitol. The story opens deep underground, where the citizens of District 13 have been residing. Under the watchful eye of the cold President Coin [Julianne Moore], Katniss is reluctantly coached and prompted to be the inspirational face of the resistance. Unfortunately, all attempts to portray the teenager as a heroic figurehead ring false and it’s only when Katniss witnesses President Snow’s [Donald Sutherland] destructive retaliation first-hand that she is able to channel the rage, frustration and horror that she has experienced. To add to the emotional turmoil, Peeta [Hutcherson] is still being held by the Captiol and is being used as a puppet to spout propaganda that directly conflicts with Katniss’ rebellious agenda.

The kneejerk reaction is probably the most inaccurate one. Many people will leave the cinema saying the story was boring or that nothing happened. This simply isn’t the case. Most cinemagoers believe the meat of a film is the spectacle, whether it’s a big action scene, an emotional confrontation or a song about letting things go. But as films like Transformers: Age Of Extinction prove, all spectacle and no development does not a film make. What we have here are the necessary components to build character, generate worlds and drive the story to the climactic finale but before we can get to the spectacle element, we’re ushered out and told to wait until next year. Admittedly, on occasion, this can work quite well but in the case of a novel that relies on the beginning-middle-end structure to properly function, having the formula tampered with only ensures lacklustre pacing. To digress just a little, I also feel that whether or not the one novel split works hinges largely on the content of the book. Things like Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows has so much going on in the last volume that you can effectively make a reasonable film out of the first and last half (rather than sacrificing a significant amount of plot detail) and The Hobbit which draws on external annotations and expansions to fill out what is a relatively small tale.

On the whole, it’s a bit of a jumbled confused narrative. The opening setting for the film (the red lit pipes and hospital beds) seem to contradict the closing shots of Catching Fire, the respective reintroductions to the other victors are somewhat out-of-character and slowly revealing the inner workings of District13 is a tad disorientating. So after this stumbling ground of establishment, we’re supposed to be thrust into the story but without the expected structure of ‘the games’ the audience is sold on the pending revolution – which has yet to actually rear its head. Taking the story out of the games and into the real world should ensure that the story feels fresh (and it does) but in the process they lost some of the terror and suspense in exchange for political intrigue and subterfuge. While trading a thunderdome style battle royale for Stalingrad style guerrilla warfare is a commendable transition, it largely felt like the staged promos rather than an actual resistance – equally, staying with Katniss and having the audience discover the state of the world as she does is a nice touch but leaves a lot of unanswered questions – both of which are side effects of the ‘half a story’ issue.

One of the Hunger Games franchise’s strongest elements is the quality of acting talent; specifically the front-and-centre presence of Jennifer Lawrence. Where the franchise falters, however, is peripheral returning characters – but what would you expect from a series of films about killing off 80% of the cast. Every time Peeta turns up, I want to slap his stupid helpless face, Gail gets a bit more screen time but it ultimately amounts to more of the same moping, Finnick has lost all sense of his confidence and swagger and a few other familiar faces pop up but they are mostly glazed over in favour of the new characters, such as the rigid President Coin and filmmaking Capitol defectors, Cressida, Pollox and Troy and.. some other guys, I don’t remember. The only ones who seem to come out unscathed from film-to-film are Snow and Haymitch.. but even then they don’t get enough lines or presence to really stretch their legs. Speaking of Cressida and her crew, the whole documenting thing fell flat with me. I liked the forced propaganda failing but when you finally see Katniss’ emotional outpouring it was so perfectly worded and without pause, hesitation or stumbling that rather than feeling passionate and from-the-heart, it simply came off as scripted. But despite the stellar central acting I still stand by a gripe that I had from the first film, whereby no matter how powerful and independent Katniss becomes, she’s still sitting on the fence of ‘which boy do I choose?’ despite the answer being blatantly obvious to the other characters and the audience. I’m sorry, if Twilight can’t get away with it, neither can The Hunger Games. It’s a cheap romantic gimmick and it’s never been very well executed. Lawrence manages to sell us the internal division but no matter how well she presents it, it’s still a tired uninspired development.

Stepping away from the pacing, storytelling and acting for a second, the film is just as technically commendable as its predecessors. Gone are the flamboyant extravagant flourishes of life in the Capitol and the focus is very much aimed at the death and destruction of the average District citizen. The CGI is used sparingly but utilised well, the costume design is fairly basic but this reflects the nature of the narrative, the score continues to maintain a reasonable level of flare and function throughout and the direction is fairly impressive considering the heavily retreaded scenarios and interactions. I imagine if one were to spend an entire day watching all four Hunger Games films at home (obviously this hypothetical situation is set in the future, so.. just picture hoverboards and jetpacks) this instalment would work well as a lead-in to the second part but at this point, it’s just not enough. Lacking in resolution, closure and finality (somewhat like the close of Catching Fire actually), The Mockingjay: Part One is entertaining but a touch disappointing.

Release Date:
20th November 2014

The Scene To Look Out For:
It’s no secret that this movie substitutes action for political machinations; which is a bold move for this type of release. One of the best examples of this, is the PR team brainstorming perpetrated by the District 13 cadre. Haymitch poses the question ‘what are the most moving moments of Katniss’ life’ which are then reeled off and listed on a board – almost like a TV panel rating a show of clearly deep and traumatic moments for this young woman, torn apart and displayed as if they were merely points to highlight and promote. The story desperately tries to convey this element that the figurehead they’ve concocted to spearhead their revolution is in actuality a real teenage girl and all the demands, expectations and manipulation only serves to distance her from the cause. If they succeed with that message anywhere, it’s here.

Notable Characters:
As I’ve said, this entire franchise is carried by Ms. Lawrence’s acting ability. However, without a villain, she wouldn’t be worth watching. It’s my opinion that Donald Sutherland has been delivering some of his finest performances of the last few decades in his short reoccurring scenes within these films. His President Snow is a ruthless, opportunistic, devious individual of the best kind and everything an audience would want from a heel.

Highlighted Quote:
“If we burn, you burn with us”

In A Few Words:
“Despite a few solid core elements, The Mockingjay: Part I flails wildly to generate some momentum and when it finally does, it closes”

Total Score: